Charles Belote, an online bachelor's student from Amarillo, Texas, says he sees his fair share of bad behavior on the online discussion boards he is required to use for class.
In one online course he took at Colorado State University—Global Campus, he saw students use a class discussion board to gang up on a student from Mexico who struggled with English. In others, his classmates used bad grammar and poor spelling during their required online debates.
Decades ago, the only way students could express themselves in class was to raise a hand and join the discussion. These days, online students such as Belote can communicate with their virtual classmates through blogs, discussion boards and other online forums.
"Most of the time discussion boards were great," says Belote, 53. "But every now and then you would read a sentence and not understand a word they said in it. It was a shame."
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While communication is different in online classes than in traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, that doesn't means expectations aren't just as high, experts say. Depending on the faculty member, a less-than-impressive online presence can lead to a less-than-impressive grade.
If students want their instructors smiling – not sighing – in front of the computer screen, they should mind the following tips when they are writing online.
1. Pay attention to spelling and grammar: Online students should strive to write clearly and correctly, says Bili Mattes, interim provost and chief academic officer at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.
"Punctuation is important," Mattes says. "Ending a sentence with a period so people know when you end your thought is really good practice."
Before students draft an online comment or email, Mattes suggests they first type out their thoughts in a word processing program, where they can check for spelling mistakes and grammar issues.
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It may seem obvious, but an online discussion board is not the place to use the kinds of abbreviations acceptable in a text message or Facebook post, says Rena Palloff, an online instructor and coauthor of "Lessons From the Virtual Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching."
"It's been my experience that not only do instructors get upset with it because it's not proper English, other students do as well," Palloff says.
Oftentimes, she says, her older and international students will be confused when students revert to so-called "text speak" in their posts. To make sure everyone is on the same page, students should use language everyone can understand, she says.
2. Keep comments focused on the relevant topic: Online instructors want to see their students participate in class, but they don't want to see them go overboard, experts say.
"Don't over-contribute," says Tom Sanchez, an online instructor at Virginia Tech. "If someone sees a post that goes on and on, it would be like being in a conversation with someone who starts to dominate. There might be a reaction from other people."
Students can be both thoughtful and succinct, Sanchez says. When contributing to a debate, he suggests students make sure their response length is appropriate for the forum.
Belote urges his fellow students to avoid tangents and keep their responses relevant.
"Stick with the question," he says. "That's how we all learn."
3. Be considerate of faculty and fellow classmates: When students are contributing to an online forum, they should always reread their comments to check for tone, experts say. Discussion boards that lack civility can alienate students and frustrate faculty.
"In the written word there can be a tone that maybe doesn't exist face-to-face," says Kim Brooks, academic dean of Ivy Bridge College of Tiffin University. In an online environment, students can't rely on body language to convey meaning, she says.
The same courtesy students show their classmates should extend to emails with instructors, experts say.
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"You should think in terms of a business email and not a text message or Facebook post," says James Porter, a professor who teaches online courses at Miami University—Oxford. "You use 'please' and 'thank you.' You sign your email. You use names when appropriate."
4. Don't share personal details: Discussion boards are great places to share tips for solving math equations, but they are not the place to discuss a recent breakup, experts say.
"Students forget that this is a public forum," says Mattes of Harrisburg. "They may say things that are way too personal, casual or inappropriate."
It is fine for students to form connections with classmates, faculty members say. But when a discussion turns personal, it's time to take it offline.
The same rules apply to email, experts say. Unless a student has established a close relationship with an instructor, it's best to keep communication professional.
"I sometimes get emails from students telling me their whole life story," says Palloff, the instructor and author. "I really don't need to hear all of that."
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